Behavioral Psychology

The Confederate Flag and Teaching Pigeons to Bowl: What Does it Mean?

Robert Kegan relates a story concerning the work of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in his book, The Evolving Self. Skinner boasts that pigeons could be taught to bowl:

“Behavioralists put pigeons in miniature bowling alleys and allow them to behave as they wish. Eventually they happen to stand where the bowler rolls the ball, and at this moment they are rewarded with food. They then go about their business but eventually return to the bowler’s position, where they are again rewarded. Before too long they begin to hang around at the bowler’s spot, and eventually in their random body movements they lower their heads toward a miniature bowling ball; at this moment they get an even bigger reward. Before too long they not only spend most of their time where a bowler stands, they also have their heads down ready to push the ball. Eventually, of course, they actually push the ball, and - well, you get the idea. As Skinner said, “Getting them to bowl strikes takes even longerbut is no more complicated.” [i]

Teaching pigeons to bowl, and even bowl strikes, may be possible. However, the important question is, “would it mean anything to the pigeon?” Only more food. By comparison, pigeons fly and we do not. Pigeons have feathers; we have skin. Pigeons lay eggs; we birth our young. We are homo sapien sapiens. The verb sapere is from the Latin. It means “to taste or to know.”

What do we know? Meaning has to do with facts and how we interpret these facts. “Our baby died,” might be a fact: but what does this mean? It might mean the conflicting emotions of sadness and relief if the child was born with severe congenital defects that are beyond the reach of science and medicine. It could mean insurmountable guilt if the infant died in the heat of an unattended automobile. It could mean blind rage and inconsolable remorse if the infant was kidnapped and murdered.

Which brings us to the Confederate Flag. A flag, after all, is just a flag. So what does the flag mean? It depends upon your history and experience. Your history and experience creates ideas and beliefs that shape the lens in terms of how you see the world.

As for the Confederate Flag, it largely depends on the history and experience of your ancestors and how they came to this country. Did they choose or was the choice made for them? Did they come fleeing religious persecution or potato famines or were they captured, enslaved, and sold upon arrival? Were their rights guaranteed by the constitution or did this same document count them as 3/5ths of a human being?

Our history and experience is radically different depending on where we find ourselves in this meaning-making matrix. Those who came by choice had the power to do so. Those who had no choice were powerless. I am a southerner by birth. My history and experience includes those who fled to this nation because of the Irish potato famine. My ancestors were sharecroppers. Although they were not slaves they probably were indentured servants. Even so, by being members of the majority, the white majority, we are collectively connected as the oppressors by those who were the oppressed. This is the point that is difficult for many of the "good old boys" to understand which entirely misses the point. We will never understand until we see it through the lens of the oppressed. Period.

For German citizens who were demoralized and defeated after WW I and the reparations assessed by the Treaty of Versailles, the Swastikas and the flags of the Third Reich were symbols of nationalistic pride. For Jews those same symbols are forever connected to evil, torture, and mass genocide. It is no accident that Dylann Roof and other white supremacists can interchangeably fly both of these flags.

The pictures of Dylann Roof holding these flags ablazed by the evil and hatred in his eyes are unmistakable. These dots have now and again been forever connected: flag, evil, hatred, slaughter, massacre, innocents. Enough is enough. The Confederate Flags must come down.

Removing the flags will not remove the hatred. We know that. We should know better. After all, we are not pigeons.

[i] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 174.